Terry Eagleton’s Critical Revolutionary Reading

Britain’s foremost Marxist critic, Terry Eagleton, accounts for the intellectual achievements, as well as the ideological and critical limitations, of a formative strand of British literary humanism.

Interior of Trinity College Library, Cambridge University. (Photo by Central Press / Getty Images)

At first sight, Terry Eagleton’s most recent book, Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read — of more than fifty in his long and singular career as a critic — looks slightly parochial in its scope (not least compared to his previous books for Yale University Press, which include On Evil (2010), Culture (2016), Humour (2019), and Tragedy (2020)). Its title and subtitle, to be sure, resist this inference, or seek to preempt it, since they deploy the sort of inflationary rhetoric, here playfully echoing stock leftist phrases, on which publishers predictably insist. But they don’t disclose a lot of detail.

Who, precisely, is the book about? It is an introduction to five early or mid-twentieth-century critics of English literature, all of whom were male and closely associated or even identified with one of Britain’s most ancient and conservative institutions, Cambridge University: T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, F. R. Leavis, and — born after rather than before World War I — Raymond Williams. These Cambridge critics pitted themselves, some more militantly than others, against the prevailing, aristocratic conventions of literary criticism. This was Cambridge contra Cambridge. It was, in Leavis’s formulation, “the essential Cambridge in spite of Cambridge.”

This isn’t the sort of slogan that mobilizes the masses; but these five critics, according to Eagleton, initiated a “critical revolution” nonetheless. This critical revolution involved challenging “the genteel amateurism of an older generation of upper-class literary scholars” and displacing it with “a new, rigorously analytical approach to literary works.” And it therefore radically remade the way in which, to this day, we read. There is, then, nothing parochial about this book about a handful of critics whose professional lives centered on a small university town in the bleak region of eastern England known as the Fens (just as a book about the intellectual impact of the Yale school of criticism from the late 1970s and 1980s need not be limited by its geographical or institutional setting). Eagleton reappraises the pioneering critical theories and practices of these five critics, especially insofar as they variously combined “practical criticism” with “a concern for the social and intellectual context of literature.” The book convincingly demonstrates that we remain fundamentally indebted to them as interpreters of literature and culture. We have them to thank for the fact that criticism of English literature and culture did not continue to be the preserve of a social elite who exercised their supposedly impartial “taste” in the interests of cementing the hegemonic authority of a declining imperial civilization.

Of course, before the force and reach of this reappraisal of the five Cambridge critics becomes apparent, as it steadily does, Critical Revolutionaries might, on the face of it, seem more parochial still if Eagleton’s own relationship to Cambridge University and the critical tradition or traditions it fostered is taken into account. He refers explicitly to these biographical investments in the final paragraph of his introduction, which points, “on a personal note,” to his own intellectual training in English literature at Cambridge. He admits, for example, that, though he never met Eliot himself, he “knew a few people who did”; and he reports that he glimpsed Richards in Cambridge and attended lectures by both Leavis and Empson (the latter, on whom he writes an especially stimulating chapter, he describes as “perhaps the cleverest critic England has ever produced”). Eagleton’s friendship with Williams, for its part, is well documented — Williams taught him in the early and mid-1960s and has remained of cardinal importance to him, both intellectually and politically, in the six decades since. In this book, Eagleton movingly refers to Williams as “my teacher, friend and political comrade.” As someone who migrated to Cambridge as an undergraduate from a working-class Irish Catholic community in Manchester, Eagleton’s conflicted relationship to the culture — or cult, perhaps — of English literature at Cambridge is one of the stories of his life.

In Politics and Letters (1979), the monumental book of interviews the editors of New Left Review conducted with him, Williams rather proudly claimed that Eagleton, as a postgraduate student, was so “inside” his lecturer’s thought processes that he was able to detect the slightest shifts in “the logic of the argument” that his mentor was developing for the book he was writing at the time, The English Novel From Dickens to Lawrence (1970). Little more than a decade after this peculiarly intense apprenticeship, in a fearsome 1976 critique entitled “Criticism and Politics: The Work of Raymond Williams,” Eagleton attacked Williams’s academicism and idealism, thereby committing what some on the Left regarded at the time as an act of intellectual parricide. But their comradeship persisted, and Eagleton continued to honor the political, moral, and critical example of his teacher and guide. Looking back, it can confidently be said that, alongside Stuart Hall, Williams and Eagleton are the most significant socialist critics and theorists of literature and culture in Britain of the last seventy-five years; and their relationship, though undoubtedly complicated, was enormously productive.

In his introduction to Critical Revolutionaries, adopting mild and apparently modest tones, Eagleton announces that, in this book, “I look back across 60 years to a critical milieu which helped to form me, and to the later history of which I hope to have made some small contribution.” Eagleton, who will be eighty years old next year, has of course made an extremely substantial contribution to both the study of literature, at least in Britain, and, in a rather broader context, the development of a philosophically sophisticated, historically nuanced Marxist cultural theory. (This wasn’t something that could be taken for granted, it’s necessary to recall, even for those generations that followed the Frankfurt School, as the endeavors of Fredric Jameson over his lifetime, roughly contemporaneous to Eagleton’s, also suggest.) But, leaving aside these “qualitative” achievements, which are obvious in major books such as Criticism and Ideology (1976), The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), and Sweet Violence (2002), Eagleton’s “quantitative” achievements are also impressive. For, in part because of the expansion of higher education that followed the start of his career as a professional academic, and in part because of the rise of literary theory, Eagleton has in his time probably reached a far broader audience than his predecessors, the seminal Cambridge critics on whom Critical Revolutionaries focuses.

Famously, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), a superbly punchy and penetrating guide to the exotic, mainly European methodologies that were then still implanting themselves in English departments on both sides of the Atlantic, became a best seller — supposedly shifting more than a million copies by the end of the century. Moreover, Eagleton’s polemics against Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whose theological illiteracy he decisively attacked in the 2000s, also gained him a popular readership. So did more explicitly political books like Why Marx Was Right (2011), which also became a best seller. This bracing introduction to Karl Marx’s thought appealed to a generation of British students who, appalled by the spectacle of capitalist crisis in 2008, were subsequently battered by both the introduction of university tuition fees of up to £9,000 and, in more general terms, the progressive marketization of higher education that this punitive act signaled. At the same time, however, principally because of the decline of the patrician social dispensation that once sponsored English literature as an Arnoldian ideological project, though also no doubt because of his resolutely and consistently radical politics, Eagleton has never acquired the cultural authority, or cultural capital, that even mavericks such as Leavis, Richards, and Empson enjoyed (for similar reasons, no doubt, neither did Williams).

This isn’t the place to reconstruct Eagleton’s contribution to the history of literary and cultural criticism or theory in Britain since the 1970s; but it’s important to point out that he has been explicitly assessing the significance of these Cambridge apostles of a new criticism since at least the late 1960s, when all of them but Eliot were still alive, if not, in most cases, still intellectually active. In his 1968 essay “The Idea of a Common Culture,” for example, when he was no more than twenty-five, Eagleton engaged in a comparison of Eliot, Leavis, and Williams on the grounds that “these figures represent respectively what could be termed the conservative, liberal, and radical socialist perspectives on culture and society” — that is, on the debates about the relationship between aesthetics and politics that had descended from the nineteenth century, as set out by Williams in 1958’s Culture and Society: 1780–1950 itself. He returned to early twentieth-century Cambridge as a laboratory for new critical practices in “The Rise of English,” the arresting opening chapter of Literary Theory. There, in fact, he offered a far fuller account than he does in Critical Revolutionaries of the institutional and cultural context that the quinumvirate on whom he here concentrates variously sought to transform, in their unsystematic but nonetheless systemic ways, through their hermeneutic and pedagogic practices.

Indeed, Eagleton’s most recent book might have benefited from a slightly longer, fuller introduction that detailed what he characterized in Literary Theory as “the final victory of English studies at Oxford and Cambridge.” In the earlier book, he provided a typically spritely, intellectually agile account of the class and gender politics of the discipline in its institutional setting, demonstrating that, in the late nineteenth century, English literature was gendered both as “feminine,” insofar as it was concerned with “finer feelings,” and “masculine,” insofar as it became part of an ideological campaign to create a national tradition that might reinforce Britain’s imperial agenda. The former, as Eagleton neatly summarized it, was associated with English literature, the latter with English literature. He then sketched out the ways in which World War I, and the “carnage of ruling-class rhetoric” that it inflicted, “put paid to some of the more strident forms of chauvinism on which English had previously thrived.” This cataclysm, he explained, opened the discipline up to critics of a non-patrician, professionalized sort such as Leavis and Richards, both of whom came from a lower-middle-class background rather than an upper-class or upper-middle-class one. From the 1930s, Eagleton argued in Literary Theory, these figures refashioned the discipline as:

an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence — what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital centre of the most essential values — were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny.

The reference here is to Scrutiny, the enormously influential journal edited by F. R. and Q. D. Leavis. (Q. D., author of the 1932 book Fiction and the Reading Public, who was married to F. R., doesn’t make many appearances in Eagleton’s account.) In the 1930s, this journal became the core of a readership that, not unlike the ones centered on periodicals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, appointed itself as an intellectual elect — a meritocratic rather than aristocratic one — that might protect or even save “creative values,” as Eagleton puts it in Critical Revolutionaries, “in a degenerate era.” In the face of mass culture, literature promised to redeem the morals of a generation in peril. Literary criticism, the scrutineers believed, “was the best training ground for the development of a free, unspecialised, disinterested intelligence, which could be brought critically to bear on social existence as a whole.” The class politics of Eliot and Williams, to the right and left, respectively, of Richards, Leavis, and Empson, complicate their relationships to this ideological project, but it still constituted the moral framework within which they hammered out their own practice as critics. Williams, for example, was often mistaken for a liberal when he published Culture and Society, a book that owed a good deal to Leavis and his school. And it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s, as Eagleton comments, when there was an “influx into Britain of various neo-Marxist theories, in most of which culture, language, art, consciousness and communication were granted a more pivotal role than the Marxism of Williams’s student days had ever allotted them,” that Williams’s humanistic stripe of socialism came to seem part of a broader leftist intellectual tradition. Here, Eagleton is thinking, among others, of Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Lucien Goldmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno.

There are thus parallels between the humanist position of the five critics whose biographical and intellectual trajectories Eagleton so lucidly and passionately reconstructs in this book and that of the most significant socialist critics of culture in the period between the world wars, many of whom also regarded literature as a privileged site for pursuing interdisciplinary research into society as a totality. In fact, one means of grasping the intellectual importance in Britain of Eliot, Richards, Empson, Leavis, and Williams as a constellation is to tabulate them along the lines that Perry Anderson tabulated the careers of Lukács, Sartre, Adorno, and the rest of them in Considerations on Western Marxism (1976), for Anderson there usefully listed the dates of these preeminent European aesthetic thinkers. Eagleton’s English (or Cambridge) luminaries are strictly contemporaneous with the more fashionable neo-Marxists whose biographies Anderson briefly enumerated: Eliot was born in 1888, three years after Lukács and three years before Benjamin; Richards was born in 1893, one year after Benjamin; Leavis was born in 1895, the same year as Max Horkheimer; and Empson was born in 1906, the year after Sartre. Williams, for his part, was born in 1921, three years after Louis Althusser and three years before Lucio Colletti.

Of course, the Cambridge Five were “revolutionaries” in a far more limited sense than the so-called Western Marxists. The latter were socialists and internationalists, albeit of several different varieties, whose exilic lives were definitively shaped, sometimes all too dramatically, by the immense social transformations taking place in Europe during the “Age of Extremes.” All of them developed their aesthetics in dialogue with the revolutionary politics of the period. But the former, too, as Eagleton persuasively reveals in Critical Revolutionaries, were profoundly subversive in their more limited context (Williams, like the Western Marxists, with some of whom he directly engaged, also increasingly developed his aesthetics in dialogue with revolutionary politics). Collectively, the Cambridge Five overturned the prevailing conventions of literary criticism, introducing an analytical stringency and a creativity that is comparable to that of their other immediate contemporaries on the European mainland, namely the Russian and Czech formalists. All the Cambridge men on whom Eagleton focuses reinvented, in their different, sometimes countervailing ways, both the canon of literature and the means by which it was transmitted and taught. Indeed, in an institutional and pedagogic context, one that extends to American higher education, they have undoubtedly proved more influential than either the Marxists or the formalists. In the United States, for example, the New Criticism was profoundly indebted to Richards’s practical criticism, though it should be added that attempts to reduce them to one another are highly misleading.

If the formalists and Marxists effected a sort of socialist revolution in literary criticism in the early twentieth century, then Eagleton’s Cambridge critics simultaneously effected a bourgeois one in Britain. In Critical Revolutionaries, which makes a compelling case for thinking that Eliot, Richards, Empson, Leavis, and Williams comprised “a specific intellectual formation,” Eagleton outlines the readerly revolution of this very English avant-garde with characteristic verve. He sends us back to their writings with a renewed sense of admiration for their intellectual achievements, in spite of the ideological and critical limitations of their criticism that, at the same time, he unsentimentally but not ungenerously exposes. Eagleton also offers readers a renewed sense of their relevance, for the book implicitly affirms the need — in the early twenty-first century, when the act of reading and the practice of criticism have been transformed by online technology and the habits it induces — to learn from their attentive, socially and morally sensitive modes of interpretation. Ruefully reflecting on the “spirit of hostility” that animated it, Williams once commented that he couldn’t “help feeling that this culture is rotten with criticism.” He meant that, both in its specialist and nonspecialist forms, it had been reduced to what he called mere “fault-finding.” How much more is this the case in the era of the 280-character critique? Disciplined close reading of the sort pioneered by Eagleton’s Cambridge critics, informed as it was by a pressing sense of ethical or political responsibility, is of no less exemplary importance today than it was when they first transformed the practice of interpretation.

About the Author

Matthew Beaumont is a professor of English literature at University College London.